EPL

Man United v Liverpool: How Solskjaer, Klopp bridge the gap to Man City

By Sports Desk May 01, 2021

Liverpool's trip to Manchester United on Sunday will likely be the most watched and fiercely debated match of the weekend in the Premier League, but in a sense there is feeling of it being something of a damp squib.

Perhaps it would be different were fans allowed into Old Trafford, but for the time being they remain absent.

Make no mistake, both teams still have particular ambitions to achieve this season. It's not quite a dead rubber.

But regardless of achieving their respective current targets – reach the top four for Liverpool, and United securing second place in the assumption Manchester City won't suddenly capitulate – there will still be a sense of unfulfillment.

United want more, Liverpool expected more.

Realistically the best Liverpool can hope for now is fourth, and even then that looks a tough ask, while United will seemingly have to settle for second. Although by no means a poor season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men, the Red Devils' fans will surely never be entirely happy with second, especially when it's their neighbours finishing above them.

City have, for the majority of the season anyway, been considerably better than the rest. So what can United and Liverpool do to potentially bridge the gap next season?

MAN UNITED

Seek more from the right side of the defence

In recent years, when United have had issues with their team they have perhaps been too willing to chuck a load of money at the issue – maybe that's the solution here, or maybe there are young talents coming through who are ready for the next level, only Solskjaer really knows that.

Nevertheless, an area where United can improve is the two right-hand berths of their defence.

While Aaron Wan-Bissaka has proven himself a very capable defender, it's fair to say he's still lagging behind in the attacking department. His 26 chances created isn't horrendous, but there's undoubtedly a lot of room for improvement.

For example, Wan-Bissaka's 78.7 touches per 90 minutes this term is only slightly fewer than Luke Shaw's 82.2, but the left-back has played 130 (196 compared to 66) more passes into the penalty area. He's far more forward-thinking and at the moment that gives United a certain predictability in the final third.

No one would say Wan-Bissaka is a lost cause, but currently he has no competition. Shaw's improvement since having Alex Telles to put pressure on him has been considerable – perhaps such encouragement would work for the right-back as well?

Wan-Bissaka's lack of effectiveness in attack is certainly not their only issue in defence, however – Victor Lindelof appears to have hit a ceiling.

Although stylistically he seems a decent fit for Solskjaer's system as he is comfortable in possession – as evidenced by his 13 goal-ending open-play sequences being bettered by only Maguire among Premier League centre-backs – teams tend to target him because he's far less domineering.

Not since 2016-17 has Maguire averaged fewer than three aerial wins per game: Lindelof's never even reached three, while there have also been concerns about the Swede's positioning.

That's highlighted by the fact he averages considerably fewer interceptions per 90 minutes compared to Maguire (0.9/1.8).

Get an actual right winger

Again, it remains to be seen whether United's move here would be to buy or trust youth – after all, they did spend a small fortune on Amad Diallo last year, though his influence has been minimal at most since linking up with United in January.

Mason Greenwood seems their best option on the right at the moment and his form has picked up significantly of late after an underwhelming first two-thirds of the season. His ineffectiveness at times this term paved the way for Daniel James to get back into the side, and few United fans would consider the Welshman to be anywhere good enough as a long-term, first-choice option.

While Greenwood has certainly been an effective presence out on the right at times, he's not exactly been an effective creator – nine players (to have featured at least 10 times) in the United squad can better his chance creation frequency of 0.8 per 90 mins.

Now, perhaps that's partly skewed by his early season form, yet only Bruno Fernandes (3.3) averages more shots than Greenwood (3.2) each game.

With Edinson Cavani reportedly set to stick around for another season, United might opt to begin moulding Greenwood to become his replacement, thus freeing up the right-wing slot for someone else.

Facilitate a Pogba and Fernandes partnership

You'd think this would be simple, and recent evidence has strongly suggested they can coexist – after all, both were excellent against Roma on Thursday.

But since Fernandes joined, United have only won 55.2 per cent of games across all competitions in which they've both featured, as opposed to 72.2 per cent when one or the other has been missing.

Few would disagree that they are United's two most talented players, but occasionally squeezing them both into the side has resulted in Pogba being shunted out wide. While still functional there, that's clearly not the best use of his talents.

Developing their partnership may require Solskjaer to loosen the strings of pragmatism a little. He likes to play Fred and Scott McTominay together in the midfield when some feel they might be better off with just one of them.

Now, whether that's because he doesn't truly trust Pogba and Fernandes off the ball, or if he's actually not convinced enough by Fred nor McTominay defensively, only he knows.

But allowing Pogba and Fernandes to consistently thrive in the same team would surely work wonders for United in the final third.

LIVERPOOL

Provide better cover for Alexander-Arnold

If there's one Liverpool player who's shouldered the most criticism in this underwhelming title defence it's arguably Trent Alexander-Arnold.

But some of the flak has been a little harsh, whether it's been focused on his attacking productivity or defensive positioning.

Granted, his chance creation is down from 2.5 to two per 90 minutes and that's understandably been reflected in an assists decrease from 13 to five.

But the flipside to that is in 2019-20 he massively over-performed his xG value of 9.7, whereas this term there's only a 0.8 difference (five assists, 5.8 xG). This suggests that, where he was benefiting from his team-mates' brilliant finishing last term, in 2020-21 that's not been the case.

As for his defensive output, there's little evidence to suggest he's doing worse. On the contrary in fact, he's actually averaging more tackles, tackles won and interceptions than in 2019-20, while only one perceived error by Alexander-Arnold has led to a shot this season. He was guilty of three in the title-winning campaign.

The key thing we have to consider when analysing Alexander-Arnold's season, however, is the extent of Liverpool's defensive injuries.

It would be fair to assume that he's not been quite as much of an attacking threat because he's been playing in an often-makeshift defence, holding back a little because the threat of an opposing attack is greater without the likes of Virgil van Dijk.

Presuming Van Dijk and Joe Gomez stay fit next season, that in itself is a much more solid base. That may, in theory, provide Alexander-Arnold with the necessary assurances that encourage greater attacking impetus.

Get more from Thiago

Another Liverpool player whose ability has been called into question a lot this season is, remarkably, Thiago Alcantara. A key cog of Bayern Munich's all-conquering 2019-20 side, but on Merseyside he's had to contend with plenty of doubters.

While he was initially seen as the final missing weapon to Klopp's arsenal, the kind of player who could provide greater creativity in a midfield that beforehand was more functional that fun, many have since gone full revisionist.

Many of the concerns have related to suggestions he's not the right fit for Liverpool's intense style of play, particularly how high up the pitch they press.

But there is very little evidence to back such claims up. PPDA data suggest it's actually nonsense. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team's own defensive third divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.  

Liverpool's this season is 10.6 whereas Bayern's last season was 9.8, indicating that Die Roten actually press slightly higher than the Reds.

No, the far likelier cause of Thiago's underwhelming season is probably the human side of football. It can be easy to forget sometimes that footballers are people too. Having your first season at a club mired by injury problems, which also affected you, and contracting coronavirus cannot be the ideal situation.

We'll surely only get a better grasp of Thiago's suitability at Liverpool next season.

Refresh the frontline

As Mohamed Salah continues to thrive, his excellence not only highlights himself, but also casts a shadow of doubt over Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

While critics have been unconvinced by Firmino for some time, despite clearly offering a lot to the Reds when at the peak of his powers, questions over Mane are a rather newer phenomenon.

In 2019-20 he had a hand in 25 Premier League goals (18 scored, seven set up), but he's on less than half of that at the moment (eight goals, five assists).

Having outperformed his xG by 4.4 last season, he's now 3.9 under his xG value of 11.9 for 2020-21. Firmino's under-performance in 2019-20 was five, this term it's 4.4.

For Mane, this means that where he was proving to be remarkably deadly in 2019-20, he's now wasteful – Firmino is spurning more opportunities than he should, again.

Nevertheless, Mane's form over the previous two seasons probably has him quite a lot of credit in the bank – if anyone's at threat, it's Firmino.

Diogo Jota has proven a versatile and dependable alternative to all of the front three, but Klopp might prefer more of a focal point at the tip of the attack in the long run.

If there's anywhere in the team attack where the Reds might feel that can get someone better, it's probably in the place of Firmino.

Related items

  • England white-ball captain Morgan set to retire from international cricket England white-ball captain Morgan set to retire from international cricket

    England white-ball captain Eoin Morgan is set to retire from international cricket.

    Morgan is expected to announce his retirement during a press conference at Lord's on Tuesday, with vice-captain Jos Buttler poised to replace him.

    The 35-year-old batter has transformed the white-ball fortunes of England since his appointment in 2014, leading his side to World Cup glory with a dramatic win over New Zealand at Lord's in 2019.

    Morgan also guided England to the T20 World Cup final in 2016, before reaching the semi-finals of the same competition five years later.

    While England have become a huge force in limited-overs cricket during Morgan's tenure, the left-hander has struggled with the bat in recent times.

    England completed an ODI series sweep over Netherlands last week – extending their winning run to eight matches in the 50-over format – but Morgan failed to score in two matches before missing the final clash due to injury.

    The Dublin-born Morgan has passed 50 just once in his past eight ODI innings since scoring 106 against Ireland in February 2020, and had vowed to step down when he felt he could no longer contribute.

    England face India in a three-match T20I series starting on July 7 and are set to do so without their all-time leading run scorer in T20I and ODI cricket.

    Morgan has scored 7,701 ODI runs and 2,458 runs in the shortest format at international level. His 248 ODIs and 115 T20s are also England records for appearances.

    A brilliant leader and destructive batter, Morgan made his international debut for Ireland back in 2006 before committing to play for England. He played 16 Tests between 2010 and 2012.

    Matthew Mott will expect England to continue playing the aggressive brand of cricket that Morgan instilled as his side go in search of T20 World Cup glory in Australia later this year.

    They will then head to India next year attempting to defend their world title in the 50-over format.

  • Juventus defender Frabotta completes Lecce loan move Juventus defender Frabotta completes Lecce loan move

    Juventus defender Gianluca Frabotta has joined Lecce on loan for the 2022-23 season.

    The Italy Under-21 international moved to Turin from Bologna in 2019, initially featuring for the Under-23 side before making 16 appearances for Juve in the 2020-21 Serie A campaign.

    With Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado, Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio to choose from at full-back, Frabotta was sent on loan to Hellas Verona for the 2021-22 season.

    The 22-year-old made just two appearances for Verona, totalling only 18 minutes in Serie A, before returning to Juve.

    Frabotta will again play his football away from the Allianz Stadium next season, signing on loan for newly promoted side Lecce on Monday.

    The Juve loanee will hope to help Lecce, who start their Serie A campaign against Inter, avoid an immediate return to Serie B.

  • Cech exits as Chelsea boardroom reshuffle continues Cech exits as Chelsea boardroom reshuffle continues

    Chelsea technical and performance advisor Petr Cech has become the next departure as the Blues boardroom reshuffle continued following the takeover headed by Todd Boehly.

    Boehly and Clearlake Capital completed a £4.25billion takeover of Chelsea at the end of May, making numerous changes to start their tenure.

    Blues chairman Bruce Buck was the first to depart, with director and chief decision-maker Marina Granovskaia also set to leave after 12 years at Stamford Bridge.

    Granovskaia will remain available to Boehly, who is acting as interim sporting director and chairman, for the duration of the current transfer window to help with the transitional period.

    Cech, who took the boardroom role at Chelsea in 2019 after retiring as a player, reportedly held talks with Boehly this week in the wake of the Buck and Granovskaia exits.

    The former goalkeeper has subsequently opted to leave his role, effective on Thursday.

    "It has been a huge privilege to perform this role at Chelsea for the past three years. With the club under new ownership, I feel now is the right time for me to step aside," Cech said. 

    "I am pleased that the club is now in an excellent position with the new owners, and I am confident of its future success both on and off the pitch."

    Boehly added: "Petr is an important member of the Chelsea family.

    "We understand his decision to step away and thank him for his contributions as an advisor and his commitment to the club and to our community. We wish him the best."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.